At the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Puerto Rico received a rare opportunity to show an authentic representation of its society and people. For director Glorimar Marrero Sánchez and her debut feature film La Pecera (The Fishbowl), that reality was not the postcard-ready image of the island, but a society still reeling from the effects of colonialism and climate vulnerability. And through its protagonist, the effects take on metaphorical power in the character’s cancer diagnosis. In advance of the film’s premiere in Park City, Awards Radar chatted with Marrero Sánchez to learn more about the significance of the story and its setting. Below is an edited version of that discussion.
Shane Slater: Tell me about the genesis of this story?
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez: When I started to work on the screenplay, I wanted to work with a story that was close to me. My mother died that same year of colorectal cancer, and I wanted to work with that kind of disease in a character. But I also wanted to work with colonialism. And that’s how I decide to work with Vieques and use the scenario as the space and the location as the star, you know? For the story of La Pecera, the fishbowl, I wanted to work with a character that was going through a terminal disease but I didn’t want it to be a biographical piece. I wanted to work with fiction. And that’s how I worked with familiar events such as sickness, disease, and the relevant political issues of Puerto Rico, which is where I am from.
SS: When people think about the Caribbean, they picture this carefree, sunny place. But as I was watching the film, there are all these underlying threats, with the cancer, bombs and hurricanes. Tell me more about the intentions of being very clear in showing Puerto Rico in this light.
GMS: The Caribbean archipelago of Puerto Rico is a beautiful place. I mean, Vieques has more than 30 beaches, clear water, beautiful sun, amazing breeze. It’s a paradise when you go there. But at the same time, you have these contradictions that are in the water and in the air. It’s right there in the soil. The pollution is due to the military practices conducted by the US Navy. And those contradictions, I really wanted to work on because I want to portray Vieques with its nature, but also letting the audience know that there are many other things to look at here. You can go on vacation to Puerto Rico but it’s also important that you get to know the story of Puerto Rico, and all these situations that we’ve been going through, historically, for 125 years of this political relationship.
SS: Can you speak about the socioeconomic differences and tension between San Juan and Vieques?
GMS: Yes, the municipality of Vieques, which is a small island in the east of Puerto Rico, is an underserved community. And due to the situation with the transportation, they always have issues and airplane tickets are super expensive, so people can really afford that. And they don’t have a hospital since Hurricane Maria, that hit the island in 2017. So the hospital collapsed and they have a very tiny little office, just to help people with their first symptoms. But everyone must have treatment outside of Vieques. And also, there is a situation of opportunities for employment. Everything is attached to tourism and it can be very difficult because you only provide one way of living, instead of having multiple choices.
SS: This lead role is such a heavy and symbolic character and it’s so close to home for you. How did you work with your lead actress to craft this performance?
GMS: We had an amazing experience with Isel Rodriguez. She was very connected to Vieques. From reading screenplay, she really understood the story and the intention of it. She really connected with the character of Noelia. And she did her preparation, working with the screenplay, asking me many things during rehearsals. And then we worked with the itinerary that we had for the shooting. And every day, according to the itinerary, we would rehearse but we also allowed improvisation as well. When she worked in an improvisation that we liked, we worked towards capturing that in a very organic process by studying the character very deeply and knowing the history of Vieques.
SS: Puerto Rico has a complicated relationship with the US, in that you are only considered American when it’s convenient. How does that play out in terms of the film industry in Puerto Rico? Do you feel like you’re part of the wider American system? Do you get the support?
GMS: We have many challenges. If I take for example this film, we are fully independent, non-union, because we could not afford being union. But we did talk with the union and the union understood the scale of the budget. And they were very supportive. But yes, it’s very challenging for local filmmakers. We have a program of incentives and when you present an application, you are basically competing with Disney, Fox, Sony, and the major studios that go to Puerto Rico to shoot due to these film incentives. And we Puerto Rican filmmakers are not against that. A lot of our colleagues support these kinds of projects.
But local filmmakers need to have the same opportunities and that that’s been challenging. It’s always this balance of how much money the government invests in studio system films, and how much money goes to local filmmakers. And being selected by Sundance helps our community a lot because we are fully independent and look at the result. This is our film and look at it, we sort of a whole of team that work towards that goal.
SS: Now that you’ve completed your first film, where do you go from here? What kind of work are you looking to do and become known for?
GMS: I would like to keep doing feature-length films. I like this format, I like this medium. I think it’s a medium with many possibilities. And I consider myself a storyteller that works on female, character-driven stories, and keep working towards that. And also talking about different topics that affect our community, as people from the Caribbean. I’d also like to keep working in films in Spanish. I think it’s important keep developing projects in Spanish. I’m not saying that I will not do a project in English, which I will. I will do a project in many languages. Because filmmaking is all about the mixture of languages and cultures.
So I would love to keep exploring towards that in terms of expanding my storytelling to other communities, and also looking to different situations that our brothers and sisters are going through around the globe. And we have many Puerto Rican stories and stories from the Caribbean.